The FIFA series is known and loved for many reasons, but free-flowing gameplay was never one of them. The franchise has had the marketing clout of EA behind it, the authenticity of the English Premier League and every other major to push it, the gloss, feel and atmosphere of the real thing, and the stamp of approval from football's world governing body.
Despite all this, EA found itself losing more and more of its market share in the past few years to Pro Evolution Soccer (PES), which had none of the aforementioned traits, but gave the player something FIFA had failed to do -- provide gameplay that was so engaging that it took the attention away from every other aspect of the game, however negative.
So it became evident that EA had to step up their game to once again strengthen its position as market leader. FIFA had got every other major aspect spot on; it was just a matter of getting the gameplay right. In the last console generation, PES was often referred to as a football simulator; a game that transformed football into its most realistic virtual form. It's only after playing FIFA 09 that you realise how ridiculous that notion was.
EA have put every resource into making FIFA 09 the most accurate recreation of the beautiful game, from player and ball physics to animations. What we get as a result, is the most realistic football game ever. Using a myriad of new animations, players react to different situations differently and with awe-inspiring realism. For example, heading animations vary based on the player's position and the presence of players around him. Given space and time, a defender will deliver a strong, reassuring header, getting his body behind it. But defending a corner, he will throw himself at the ball desperately to get to it before an opposing player, and only manage a weak, misdirected clearing header in the process.
These variations, made to look impressive with the wonderful and varying animations, seem all the more realistic due to the game's improved physics. The strength and direction of passes and shots on goal are more dependent than ever on player momentum, position, and pressure from the opposition.
The diminutive Messi will never stand a chance going shoulder-to-shoulder with the overbearing figure of Rio Ferdinand. That's not to say that Messi will constantly be overpowered by defenders. He's nimble and quick as opposed to the more sluggish defenders, allowing him to get past them more easily than most given a little space. It's like a game of chess; you can use your strengths against the opposition's weaknesses. You just need to learn what they are.
The one downside to the ultra-realistic approach, however, is that the individualism of some of the star players doesn't quite translate into the game. In real life, every now and then, players like Christiano Ronaldo and Messi will run rings around the opposition, breezing past three or four of them at a time. You can never do that in this game. If you're lucky enough to get past one, you best look around for a teammate to pass to, because the odds of you making it past a second one aren't too good. While this encourages build-up play, it may dissuade those looking to play a more stylish and attractive game. Whether or not this is a bad thing is a matter of personal preference; do you prefer Brazilian flair or Italian doggedness?
Photographs: EA India
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